Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 82

On April 16, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma won–hands down–his nationwide plebiscite to curtail the authority and size of the legislature and to boost his own power. Almost 82 percent of the respondents said yes to a bicameral legislature. Some 85 percent endorsed a presidential authority to disband the parliament if it fails either to establish a majority within a month or to approve the state budget within three months. More than 89 percent agreed to limit deputy immunity from prosecution. And 90 percent supported cutting the number of MPs from 450 to 300. According to a March 29 Constitutional Court ruling, the parliament (Verkhovna Rada) must now amend the constitution accordingly (see the Monitor, April 4). Kuchma thus gains a pocket parliament. The Rada will by all means try to prevent this, observers say. If so, a constitutional crisis is possible.

Interestingly, in a society marked by political apathy, voter turnout was an unexpectedly high 82 percent. To a considerable degree, this was due to a ruling which allowed those voters unable to cast ballots on April 16 to begin voting ten days early. Some 33 percent did so, and were registered as of April 15–most at military units and prisons. This strengthened doubts as to whether the vote was in fact a free one. Independent observers reported cases of police, enterprise and university coercion on citizens to vote. Prominent opposition members, including the vice president of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, Serhy Holovaty, alleged that ballot boxes were often stuffed. Central Election Commission Chairman Mykhaylo Ryabets dismissed such claims. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe refused to recognize the referendum. International observers pretty much ignored it. (Their count, Ryabets reported, was down to thirty from several hundred last year.)

The referendum amendments must follow cumbersome legal channels before they can be directly introduced into the constitution. Rada Speaker Ivan Plyushch warned on April 16 that this process would consume several parliamentary sessions–at least a year. The lawmakers are furthermore unlikely to meekly pass all the required amendments without debate. Most factions in parliament, both left- and right-wing, have promised to oppose the amendments, especially those concerning a bicameral legislature and decreasing their own numbers. Kuchma said that he would intervene if the Rada takes too long in implementing the changes and threatened to bypass it altogether if necessary. Such an unconstitutional scenario looks improbable, but, should Kuchma act on his threat, Ukraine might find itself ruled by a single authoritarian will–Kuchma’s. It is also important to note that Kuchma did not rule out resorting to referendums in the future as a way to resolve other pressing issues (UNIAN, STB TV, April 16; NTV (Moscow), New Channel TV, Ukrainian and international agencies, April 17).